Drug War (Du zhan)

China/Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Johnnie To

In Jinhai, a port city in northeast China, a car crashes through a restaurant window, driven by Choi Tin-ming/Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) a drug dealer from Hong Kong who is coked up to the eyeballs. Meanwhile the Jinhai Anti-Drug Squad, led by undercover cop Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), arrests a group of drug smugglers at the highway toll gate.

Upon learning of Choi’s identity and line of business when he is taken to the same hospital as the smugglers, Zhang tells Choi he will face the death penalty unless he helps the police bring down the entire drugs ring. Choi agrees but can he really be trusted?

Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To may have made his film debut in Mainland China in 1980 with The Enigmatic Case but he has since decide to remain on the former British colony where he made his name a reputation with a number of classic Triad/crime thrillers. After some flirtation with the Mainland in his last few films, including Romancing In Thin Air, To has finally returned to his roots and made his first Mainland Chinese film.

Concerns were high as to whether the strict censorship and moral didactics within Mainland Chinese cinema would stifle To’s usual visceral content and subversive flair and it’s fair to say that the end result is, with the exception of the end, is vintage Johnnie To.

Choi was in the state he was at the start of the film due to the explosion of his cocaine making factory which took the lives of his wife and her two brothers. Yup, drugs really are bad for you, folks. He seems to be fleeing from this mess for fear of being caught although running into Zhang probably didn’t fit into these plans, but for the no-nonsense drug cop, this is a boon.

Using Choi’s contacts and knowledge of how deals go down, we follow Zhang and his colleagues Yang Xiaobei (Crystal Huang), Xu Guoxiang (Gao Yunxiang) and Guo Weijun (Wallace Chung) as they embark on an eventful and ingenious campaign to crack this drug ring.

In true To fashion were are privy to some exceptional procedural breakdowns of how the drugs squad operates in executing these remarkable stings. Through Choi Zhang, impersonating dealer Li Shuchang meets buyer Haha (Hao Ping) and his wife, who Zhang and Yang then impersonate when the real Shuchang (Tan Kai) shows up, off his head on the white stuff. A deal it set up for Zhang (as Haha) to meet Shuchang’s boss Uncle Bill (Li Zhenqi) – but not before Zhang is forced to try some of the merchandise, threatening to expose his deceptive role-playing.

Thankfully advice from Choi on how to bring Zhang down when he starts convulsing saves his life, but he is still viewed askance by the police. It has to be said that the lengths the police go to in order to set up this charade on both the technological front and personal planning is remarkably detailed and not too far removed from the sort of scams most criminals invent in heist capers.

As one should expect from a Johnnie To film, the cast in extensive and along with the many police personnel one has to keep track of, the drug gangs also boast a slew of faces to remember to. Choi has a second factory in Erzhou, central China, run by two deaf brothers (Guo Tao and Li Jing) where Choi plants cameras on Zhang’s behalf, before heading onto Yuejiang to meet Uncle Bill.

Here To unveils some of his favourite collaborators to fill out the drugs gang, including old favourites Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Eddie Cheung and Michelle Ye just in time for a huge gun battle to close the film out, with may not be as gory as the Election films but eventful and violent enough to keep audiences captivated. To also manages to slip some of his famous black humour into this shoot out, just to remind us that he is still firmly in charge.

While the film has that Mainland “feel” about it, a polished production with perhaps a subtle presence of sterility and austerity in certain places which actually works in favour of this dark action tale, while the tone remains as close to the edginess of Hong Kong crime thrillers as it possibly can under the circumstances.

For the keen eyed viewer some may spot an allegorical undercurrent in the relationship between the Mainland cops and Hong Kong druggy Choi, built as it is on an uneasy trust where it benefits neither party to stab the other in the back. This might comes across as a (not so?) subtle dig at the frosty relationship between the mainland and its estranged autonomous offshoot, but To refrains from stabbing the knife too deeply by ensuring the dialogue is shared between Mandarin and Cantonese for maximum authenticity.

It would appear that making this film in the Mainland has somewhat reinvigorated To and this is just as evident in the performances of the cast as it is in the change of location. While familiar hand Louis Koo holds up his matinee idol part well, he is outshone by Sun Honglei who adopts a number of personalities throughout the film as his undercover cop duty calls him to.

His versatility to take his rugged stoic face as Zhang then literally transform into the jocular Haha shines through here, and if there are more To/Sun collaborations on the horizon then everyone should rejoice. A nod also goes to Crystal Huang who gets to play a strong female role and not just window dressing that is often pervasive in Chinese cinema.

To say Johnnie To is back with Drug War might be a fair assessment but it certainly marks a return to form in comparison to his more recent works, even if this is a down to a simple thing like relocation. Either way, To fans won’t be disappointed with this cracking thriller.


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